Once upon a time in a faraway land in the north, there was a wee elf that lived in a little cottage in the thick green forest. The elf enjoyed walking in the woods and on trails. He would walk miles and miles and then realize he was far from home. So he would then build a tiny shelter made of small downed trees and branches and fill the spaces between them with leaves, ferns and other debris, and then sleep soundly all night. The next morning he would wake and then hike back to his little cottage in the forest.
Winter came and snow filled the forest. The elf became concerned because he could neither hike on the trails nor build a shelter made of branches and such. So he thought and he thought to himself, "How can I hike in the woods and sleep in the night with all this snow?"
He gathered small strips of wood and curved them into the shape of a bow. When tied together at the ends and supported by crosspieces and woven with strips of cord, he could make a platform to be tied to the bottom of his feet. This made it possible for the little elf to walk on the snow without sinking up to his waist. He was so excited that he could now hike in the woods and on the trails.
"But wait," the elf thought. "How can I spend the night out there without getting cold?" He thought and thought again, came up with a plan and then he hiked and hiked deep into the snow covered forest.
When he was ready to spend the night, the elf used one of his large foot platforms to shovel snow into a very high pile. Once he finished, he rested for a while. Then the elf took a small trowel that he brought from his cottage and he began to dig into the snow pile ... and dig and dig. The elf dug until he carved-out a little space just big enough for him and his blanket. He then curled up inside his shelter and he slept soundly all night.
The next morning he woke, tied on his foot platforms and hiked back to his little cottage in the forest. And the elf lived happily ever after.
According to my Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, the word "snowshoe" is defined as "a racket-shaped frame of wood fitted with crosspieces and crisscrossed with strips of leather, worn on the feet to prevent sinking in deep snow." Of course, there are many current resources that will expand that definition to include modern aluminum frame and plastic mold snowshoes.
But nowhere in this 2,128-page, 10-pound dictionary did I find the word "quinzhee," sometimes spelled "quinzee." Exploring other resources however, I found in the National Outdoor Leadership School's Winter Camping by Buck Tilton and John Gookin a quinzhee defined as a hollowed out pile of snow traditionally used by Athabascan Indians in boreal forests of North America.
When considering both definitions of snowshoe and quinzhee, and taking a lesson from the elf, these entities together can provide quite an exciting adventure.
An exciting adventure is to snowshoe a few miles into a backcountry area carrying in your backpack all the essentials you need to stay overnight in a snow shelter of your making. It combines snowshoeing and winter camping adventures.
During a backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountain State Park several years ago, I lead a group of students on snowshoes three miles from the ranger station to an area along the Union River. Students had the choice of setting up a tent or a tarp shelter with a snow wall built to block wind, stay in the Union River rustic cabin or build a snow shelter. Two of my more adventurous students built a quinzhee. It was an adventure I am sure they will always treasure.
When taking on this level of adventure, it is important to be prepared, skilled and experienced in winter camping before heading out into the backcountry. Be sure to have all the necessary camping equipment, as well as a shovel, tarp, adequate sleeping pad, bag and extra clothes to change into after getting wet during construction of your quinzhee. I also recommend taking along a tent just in case your shelter collapses or you are not able to finish building it. It would add four or five pounds to your pack.
Building a quinzhee
Wilderness survival expert Tom Brown, Jr. once wrote, "I can hardly overstress the importance of shelter. Like your own home, a good one will protect you, maintain your body heat and provide a place you can identify with."
Shelter is as essential as food, water and fire. Brown emphasized a good shelter is a most critical necessity in a survival situation. "So remind yourself that home is where you make it, no matter how temporary. Then set about making it without delay," he wrote.
Using a shovel or one of your snowshoes, pile snow into a mound five to six feet high and 10 to 12 feet in diameter. This size quinzhee should house one or two campers comfortably. The larger the pile the more campers you can fit in it.
Poke several two-foot-long sticks into the pile at the top and around the upper sides. These sticks become guides later when you are digging out your quinzhee and want to avoid carving too close to the surface.
Pack it a bit with your hands or snowshoes if it is soft snow. Otherwise, let the snow compact on its own. Then let it sit for a few hours. Time and pressure will alter the snow's density, resulting in compacted snow that will hold up when digging into it. The snow must be firm before you can hollow out your quinzhee.
Next, dig an entrance low and relatively small, working your way up and then into the mound. I use a heavy metal collapsible shovel. In order to prevent from putting stress on the walls, be careful to cut small chunks of snow, as if sculpturing, without prying. You will eventually be digging out a dome-shaped room inside the mound, digging no closer than 1.5 to two feet from the surface. Smooth out the surface inside the structure. It will harden nicely.
Safe for habitation
An arch will provide more support than a squared space, so carve out a dome-shaped cavern parallel with the curve of your snow shelter, rather than making right angled walls. Because you need to breath. It is imperative that you make three or four adequate sized air holes through the roof or side wall. The air vent also helps body produced moisture to escape.
Remember, cold air falls. Have your sleeping area elevated from the floor of your structure so that cold air will fall down from that space. Secondly, by way of conduction, cold from the ground underneath you will pull warmth from your body unless insulated. So sleep on the elevated platform of snow, place a tarp on the platform followed by a good insulating sleeping pad. And sleep in a winter-rated sleeping bag wearing warm winter clothing.
Princeton University's Outdoor Action program has an excellent online guide to winter camping at www.princeton.edu/~oa/winter/wintcamp. This publication points out that piling snow for a two-person quinzhee, or what they also refer to as a "snow mound shelter," would take two people about an hour. Although I let my quinzhee ferment for several hours or overnight, Outdoor Action says the minimum time for it to compact naturally is one hour. Chances of a collapse are reduced if you let it set for two hours. And they say that a 35-degree angled snow mound is the best angle for snow to settle in order to reduce buckling of the roof when excavating its interior.
Do not burn lanterns or stoves inside a quinzhee because that will produce life threatening carbon monoxide. Only use a candle and dowse it before going to sleep. And keep a small shovel inside your quinzhee and next to your sleeping bag in case of a cave-in.
Building a quinzhee is hard work. I guarantee you will work up a sweat shoveling snow to make an adequate snow pile for your shelter. You will most likely get wet from digging out your space in the quinzhee. And when you complete the project, I am sure you will be wet, cold and tired.
For the beginner quinzhee camper, I recommend not snowshoeing three to five miles into the forest to make your shelter. Instead build your quinzhee close to home the first few times. Construct it at home or at a nearby campground where you have access to your car.
You can then follow your laborious day and restful night in a quinzhee with an enjoyable snowshoe hike the next morning. I woke up one morning after sleeping in a quinzhee at home and watched a beautiful sunrise from within. I then put on my snowshoes and headed out along the Big Eau Pleine Flowage where I live in north central Wisconsin and had a most enjoyable snowshoe hike.
At least once each year for the past several years, I've shoveled snow off our deck into one big pile on the east end of our home. Since our deck is about 10 feet by 30 feet, there is ample snow on its surface to make a six-foot high and 10-foot diameter snow pile needed to build my quinzhee. Each time I've taken my sleeping pad, sleeping bag and pillow in hand, said goodnight to my lovely wife Liz, and headed out the door to sleep in my new dwelling. And each time she would bid me goodnight by saying in a critical but loving tone, "Your nuts!"
Last March, Wisconsin had the perfect storm for building a quinzhee. We had 8 to 10 inches of fresh snowfall with temperatures in the upper 20s to lower 30s during the day and single digits by night. This was good because the snow would pack well during the day and freeze solid at night.
I had perfected a style that not only was great for cold weather camping, but was designed to address my slight claustrophobia. I was sure to have ample room to sit up, had four air holes the diameter of a baseball, and made an extra wide entry allowing me to look out over the entry barrier and see trees and sky. I blocked the wind from entering the quinzhee by building a three-foot high curved wall of snow about three feet out from the structure around the entryway.
In my outdoor journal I wrote, "It was a beautiful clear-sky night, but cold. The stars were out when I crawled into my quinzhee. I lit my candle and warmed my hands over it for a while. I then blew it out and snuggled down in my sleeping bag. I was surprised, as cold as it was that I did not get chilled at all that night. It was a wonderful night's sleep. I loved it."
Jim Joque is the coordinator of disability services for the university of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is also an adjunct adventure education instructor at UWSP, teaching courses on camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, adventure leadership and Leave no Trace concepts.